Popular Music and Personal Identity; Music Affects Listener Who Affects Music

9 May 2017

Popular Music and Personal Identity; Music Affects Listener Who Affects Music

Popular music, as with any medium of popular culture, infiltrates the lives of almost everyone in its era. Even if one is not keen on listening to music at all, one is still exposed to the rhythms and melodies that are popular at one time. In Daphne A. Brooks’ article, “‘Once More with Feeling’: Popular Music Studies in the New Millennium,” she describes how music, especially popular music, shapes and is shaped by one’s identity, whether national, cultural, or personal. She uses the example of  how W.E.B. DuBois claimed that “Negro folksong” provides the roots of not only American music, but part of America’s national identity.1 The folk music has shaped America’s history, and its history has certainly influenced the creation of this music. Brooks’ own claim states that “[p]opular music studies … is a field … that returns again and again to questions of national and individual identity and formations and the mutually constitutive role that music plays in those formations.”2 This symbiotic relationship between music and identity is one that can be seen on a smaller scale as well. I have found that this excerpt in relation to individual identity is most striking. Not only does popular music help to shape a generation or a culture, it can shape a single human being in just as paramount a way. In addition, one’s own influences can shape the music scene around one. In this essay, I will discuss how music has played an integral part in shaping my individuality. I will focus specifically on how one band has shaped my years at university, during which I grew into a completely different person from the one I was before. Music has solidified my identity, and my identity has shaped the music around me along the way, as well.

In the fall of 2014, I watched “Lake Street Dive Plays ‘I Want You Back’ on a Boston Sidewalk” on YouTube along with my a cappella group because a senior had just arranged this song for our group to sing. This video was played on one of the older members’ laptops as we all crowded around to watch and listen. I remember being immediately struck by the lead singer’s powerful voice and its jazzy intonations. She stretched and distorted the rhythm of the familiar Jackson 5 song in a way that allowed the listener to hear it with an entirely fresh perspective. I remember also being impressed with the harmonies provided by the rest of the band to highlight key moments of the song. Lake Street Dive’s cover has a much slower tempo than the original and a bit of a swing rhythm, putting a jazzy spin on the typically fast-paced and energetic song. They make up for the lack of speed in vocal intensity and improvisation, as Rachael Price, the lead vocalist, sings runs at the end of many phrases and changes the melody several times to create jazzier chords. I was also impressed by how synchronized the band members seemed to be despite the live, highly improvised performance, as if they were the best of friends spending an afternoon making music in the street. Though they are all playing instruments (and Price is singing) throughout the performance, they periodically respond to each other with a squint of the eyes or a shake of the head, which demonstrates how closely they are listening to each other and eager they are to contribute to the music. They would also smile and make eye contact frequently, especially while harmonizing, which made them look and sound like parts of a whole.3 After watching this video, I quickly got more interested in Lake Street Dive, admiring the jazz influences in their choice of instruments (upright bass and trumpet) and vocal style. Yet I realize now that it was not so much the elements themselves that got me interested in this band, but the reactions to these elements of the other members of my a cappella group.

That fall, I had just started university and was overwhelmed with my new lifestyle. I had just been accepted into an a cappella group and was overjoyed as I had always wanted to be part of one, but was intimidated as well. At this time in my life, I struggled with self-confidence and overanalyzed every mistake I made. I was always embarrassed about something I had said or done, perhaps weeks ago, and was constantly trying to impress or befriend those who I admired. I idolized the seniors in the group, who were wholly themselves at a time when I didn’t quite know who I was yet. They were confident, funny, and very vocally talented, and I aspired to be like them. They all also happened to be huge fans of Lake Street Dive, and raved about Price’s vocals and the band’s tight harmonies as we all watched the performance that day. With their reviews as guidance, I couldn’t help but become attached to the band.

During this first year at university, it was music that shaped my identity and it had lasting effects. My a cappella group later sang two more songs by Lake Street Dive in which I was thrilled to take part. Lake Street Dive is an up-and-coming band, but by no means well-known to the general public, so I am fairly sure I wouldn’t have even heard of them if not for those seniors at that specific point in my life. Because of my experience of that performance, I am drawn to more of their songs and even to other bands similar to them. Before I started university, I thought I had developed a fairly refined music taste, but I realize now that my favorite songs were always in the Top 40 and that my iPod consisted of almost exclusively pop music. When I was exposed to new music, and new people that enjoyed this music that I admired, I began to broaden my tastes. The fact that I performed Lake Street Dive’s songs probably also played a large factor in my growing affinity for them. As Stephen B. Groce states in his review of another work, “music, as a type of mass art, contributes to the identities of both those who produce it and those who consume it.”4 Though it wasn’t originally produced by me, I did produce a performance of it, which greatly contributed to my perception of myself at the time. All the a cappella groups on my campus had a slightly different musical vibe, and as I settled into mine, not only did my musical tastes match up with my group’s, but certain interests and personality traits began to match up as well. In an environment where music was the foundation of my relationship with certain people, the music I was exposed to became a more solidly rooted part of my character.

Almost two full years later, I saw Lake Street Dive live in concert. They performed in Portland, Maine, my hometown, while I was on a break from school and I got two tickets for my friend and myself. Right before the concert, my friend ended up canceling, which left me with an extra ticket. I gave it to my step-sister, not because she enjoyed the band or because we were particularly close at the time, but because I still wanted to go to the concert. If two years ago my friend had canceled on me last minute, I probably would not have gone to the concert. At that time in my life, it would have been more about experiencing a night out with a friend rather than listening to and appreciating Lake Street Dive’s performance. Yet two years later I considered going alone just so I could experience the music that had grown to be such a big part of my identity in person.

My step-sister and I stood in the pit not too far from the stage and had a great view of all the band members as they performed. I enjoyed the entire performance and remember being especially excited that they performed two of the three songs of theirs that my group also performs. The live performance was just as emotionally intense and impressive as the recorded one I had seen so long ago, yet this is not particularly surprising since the original video was a recording of a live performance, as well. Price’s vocal talent blew me away, particularly in places where she changed the melody of the songs I had grown to know so well, or where she growled on a note, drawing it out and making the audience cheer in the middle of a song. Her performance of “Seventeen” was one of my favorites; I knew it well since my group performed it, but I was still impressed by how the intricate rhythms and tempo changes within the song were executed as if they were nothing. Price was easily able to get into the groove of the song and her voice encompassed the song’s wide range effortlessly as she danced with her signature arm-waving motions throughout. The band members laughed and joked in between and sometimes during performances and had the same cohesion that I had seen in the very first video of them. For the rest of the night after the concert, I found myself attempting to belt out Lake Street Dive’s lyrics in Price’s powerful vocal style, wishing I could achieve her sound.

I consumed this concert with fresh ears and a fresh perspective from that which I would have had two years previously. Since starting university, I had developed my own music tastes due to this band and the circumstances around first hearing it. My identity as a member of an a cappella group influenced how I listened to it. Simon Frith writes that “[t]o understand how musical pleasure, meaning, and evaluation work, we have to understand how, as listeners, we perform the music for ourselves.”5 Frith insists that listening to music is performing that music to oneself through one’s own contextual perspective. Each member of the audience at that concert experienced the music differently due to their own context: their previous music tastes, exposure to and experience of Lake Street Dive, and even what sort of day they were having. They all performed the music for themselves differently, and it therefore impacted each spectator in a different way.

It is clear how heavily this band has influenced me over the past several years, but it is only just becoming clear to me how much my own identity, Lake Street Dive influences included, might be influencing the music scene around me, perhaps on a smaller scale. I did drag my step-sister to see a band she was only mildly interested in, and seeing them live might have changed her opinion of the band, or even subtly changed her opinions on music. I continued to sing the band’s songs in my a cappella group, and perhaps sharing this music with the audience inspired some of them to listen to more of Lake Street Dive’s or similar artists’ music. I know that Lake Street Dive’s music has shaped everyone in my group’s music tastes and in turn identities, perhaps differently from the way it has shaped mine, but did so in some way or another as it became a common point of interest for all of us.

I have discovered that every time I listen to a new piece of music, my music tastes shift slightly. I continually analyze whether I like or dislike the piece, and this requires me take my own values into consideration, which continue to grow and change. Lake Street Dive drew me in because of the people with which is was associated for me: students who were at a point in their lives where they were comfortable in themselves and confident in their abilities. These were traits that I lacked at the time, and desperately craved, so I automatically grew an affinity for the music that we could both share, that would give us something in common. As Patricia Shehan Campbell states in her article, “[m]usic was also found to provide adolescents with a medium through which to construct, negotiate, and modify aspects of their personal and group identities, offering them a range of strategies for knowing themselves and connecting with others.”6 I wished to modify aspects of my personality in order to become more similar to those I looked up to, so I used music as a means of association. I was later able to slightly shape the music around me with my personality, but first it was the music that contributed to my identity. I am sure I will hear more music in the future that will influence my character in different ways, but it was this pivotal musical moment as I was adjusting to adult life in my adolescent years that ignited the vast change in me that is most discernible now.



Brooks, Daphne A., ‘“Once More with Feeling”: Popular Music Studies in the New Millennium’, Journal of Popular Music Studies, 22.1 (2010), 98-106

Campbell, Patricia Shehan, et al., ‘’Adolescents’ Expressed Meanings of Music in and out of School’, Journal of Research in Music Education, 55.3 (2007), 220–236

Frith, Simon, Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 203–204

Groce, Stephen B, ‘Review: I Wanna Be Me: Rock Music and the Politics of Identity by Theodore Gracyk’, Contemporary Sociology, 32.1 (2003), 55–56

Lake Street Dive, ‘Lake Street Dive Plays “I Want You Back” On a Boston Sidewalk’, YouTube, (17 May 2012), 9 May 2017

  1. Daphne A. Brooks, ‘“Once More with Feeling”: Popular Music Studies in the New Millennium’, Journal of Popular Music Studies, 22.1 (2010), 98-106 (p.98).
  2. Brooks, (p.99).
  3. Lake Street Dive, ‘Lake Street Dive Plays “I Want You Back” On a Boston Sidewalk’, YouTube, (17 May 2012), 9 May 2017.
  4. Groce, Stephen B, ‘Review: I Wanna Be Me: Rock Music and the Politics of Identity by Theodore Gracyk’, Contemporary Sociology, 32.1 (2003), 55–56 (p.55).
  5. Simon Frith, Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 203–204, (p.203).
  6. Patricia Shehan Campbell, et al., ‘’Adolescents’ Expressed Meanings of Music in and out of School’, Journal of Research in Music Education, 55.3 (2007), 220–236, (p.221).

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